The extraordinary story of the US 12th Infantry in Afghanistan

It's the meanest, most dangerous hellhole in Afghanistan. But instead of killing, the US 12th Infantry is trying to make friends. This is their extraordinary story..
Infantry on patrol
They were hanging a dog. Five minutes after we arrive, climbing to the sand-bagged rampart, looking down on the village.
And they were hanging a dog. "Why?" ponders Sgt Paul Hendricksen. "Beats the s*** outta me... " We'd watched the man leading the dog by a rope to the tree, followed by a baying bunch of kids. The animal was loping along, seeming to share in the fun.
Then his handler threw the leash over a high branch, waited for the crowd to gather, and started to pull.
The dog struggled, legs kicking air, taking a couple of minutes to drape dead-still.
The crowd yelled. The man let his rope slip.
The animal crashed into the moon-dust desert soil. Then they dragged the dog to the shade of another tree, where the man began to make a speech to his assembled audience.
He could have been a teacher addressing a class. He could have been a preacher. But no one up on the hill really knew.
"That's how it is here," Sgt Hendricksen adds. "So much is mystery. Just crazy things happening we can't explain. And, all the while, we're chasin' shadows."
The soldiers have a bunch of names for this place - The Wild West, Indian Country, The Heart of Darkness... the meanest, most dangerous hellhole in Afghanistan. And we are watching a dog die at its epicentre.
Senjaray is the village where one-eyed Mullah Omar, the Taliban's fugitive leader, was based. His mosque, a long, low building squats on the town's edge, untouched by war.
Detonated The US troops don't go near it. The villagers - some 12,000 in all, spread along the valley - would go crazy if infidels went there. So you don't trespass on their sensitivities any more than you would step in to save a trusting dog from being hanged.
Yet this is the place where the combined might of Nato and Afghan forces hope to turn the eight-year war.
Just below the hilltop, separating us from the village, is Highway 1 - the paved road ringing Afghanistan. The 30-mile stretch here was the country's most bombed - seven to 10 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, detonated daily.
A busload of Afghans blown sky high, 18 dead.
Soldiers stepping on hidden bombs - limbs, sight, lives lost.
"The burnt-out tractors, cars, military vehicles littering the road were a monument to Taliban success," says Colonel Reik Andersen, 43, commander of the 1st battalion of the 12th Infantry, stationed here some 30 miles south-west of Kandahar, the country's second largest city.
"The bad guys put their bombs in the culverts, slice up the road to make you drive in the moon dust. Then - boom! - another bomb. Now we're making progress. More troops. A bigger presence. Bombs down to 10 a month. But we have to treat the local area like a china shop.
"We're here to try to protect the population.
Sure, we could go in and be very kinetic.
But cracking heads is not the way forward.
"We may not win hearts and minds but we have to build trust and confidence."
The military call it the "tipping point" - the day when the locals decide they've had enough of the Taliban who come in the night and threaten them, demand shelter and food, recruit their kids, and use their homes as bomb factories.
"Maybe another 60-90 days before we get there," the colonel says. "Then we'll be able to arrest the prominent baddies, the IED makers, without a shot being fired." It sounds more hope than reality.
The Taliban, which controls 80% of the country, has its own shadow government. It dispenses law, benefits, a measure of protection in the countryside.
And it is a many-headed beast. There are the political ideologues like Mullah Omar, currently believed to be hiding in Karachi, Pakistan. Then the warlords profiting from the marijuana and opium trade. And finally, the Ten-dollar Taliban, the dirt-poor landless ready to pick up a gun for a pittance.
But, between the Taliban and warlords and our forces, there is always the local population. And those men and women are key to current thinking in Washington and Whitehall.
They call it "counter insurgency", bringing a measure of security to these outlying villages surrounding large centres like Kandahar. It's the doughnut theory.
Ring-fence the cities and leave the remote areas to the enemy, where they can do little damage. Meanwhile, train the Afghan military and police to take over one day, some day...soon.
And drum it into the soldiers here that they are not going out to kill - no matter how much they want to. Drum it into them, goddammit, that counter insurgency measures success by what's not happening. Col Andersen strokes the butt of the 9mm Beretta pistol strapped to his thigh as he talks and you sense his own frustration as an infantry officer trained to kill, yet ordered to be calm in a conflict that cannot be measured in the outcome of battles or number of dead and injured. All is softly, softly - while the colonel admits he still sleeps with that Beretta under his pillow.
"Hey man, we're having to behave like police," says Specialist Anthony Fazzini, 21, Senjaray Camp's electrician (whose rank is equivalent to lance corporal). "It's all, 'Love me, dude - please love me', instead of putting the s*** up them like we did in Iraq.
"We're talking to these villagers and we ain't got a clue whether they're OK or Taliban. It's us looking for them, seeing us looking for them. Who knows? "And our rules of engagement state we can't arrest them unless they are directly attacking us. Hell, you get so mad you wanna start shootin' everybody.
"I'm no trigger-happy sonofabitch, but I seen a truck being blown higher than the bomb smoke and you wanna get the guys who did that."
He signed up directly after graduating from high school in Pittsburgh and states he wanted to be a soldier ever since 9/11.
Because of his specialism, he is permanently based in this Combat Operating Point, right on the front line, a little hill ringed by mountains, dog-hanging villagers, dust and an infestation of mice.
His bed is in a concrete bunker, one of the smarter billets, but next to 20 live mortar rounds. He's listening to The Beatles and the camp's favourite tune Magical Mystery Tour - just as it was 40 years ago in Vietnam.
Its lyrics are sinister: "The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away, coming to take you away, dying to take you away..."
In the next door tent, where those mice run over your chest as you try to sleep, a bunch of soldiers are whooping and yelling as they play shoot'em-up computer game Call of Duty. The screen depicts troops fighting it out in a disused factory. Bodies fall in bloody showers, seeming to fill some kind of violent void.
Outside a full moon's on the rise, its big, grinning face conducting a crammed orchestra of stars.
The throb of 18-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles , six of them, stands ready for night patrol. We travel less than a mile before "dismounting" at a petrol station owned by Haji Lala, a local big shot, pal of President Hamid Karzai and, for now, friend of the Americans.
His compound is across the road, with separate dwellings for Wife 1 and Wife 2. We pass them and tread through rutted fields, vineyards, marijuana plantations smelling like skunk musk, dried leaves sticking to my fleece. "Hey dude, better clean that off before London or some sniffer dog'll surely eat you up," says Pte Robert Bickford from Santa Rosa, California. He's laughing but here, always, the laughter is short.
These guys, according to the colonel, are "fearless in a gunfight" but night patrols "raise the hackles on your neck". You try to step on plants, not on moondust.
You are conscious of every pace.
This battalion has already lost five guys to IEDs. Just one small step... In the middle of a field we find a stone-traced copy of the Combat Operating Point, finely detailed.
Someone photographs it. Another soldier notes its GPS location. They're confident it is a Taliban blueprint.
But who knows here among the shadows, maybe it's just child's play.
A baby is crying nearby. Dogs barking. Pte Bickford falls running to stop a turbaned motorcyclist.
"My finger's right here, if he didn't halt," says the 22-year-old private, pointing to the trigger on his M4 rifle. His trousers are torn, right knee bleeding. "Hope there's no donkey s*** in there."
Shuffling The motorcyclist is "clean". So are the few other villagers, mostly old men, squatting against the mudwalled alleys in the gloom.
They tell the soldiers all they want is security. Just the chance to tend ther fields and who knows after that? More jobs, schools, hospitals... "Inshallah".
The night passes without incident. The usual sporadic Taliban gunfire...just to remind you. The freezing cold. Mice shuffling. The early-rising black private picking up his baseball bat, and trying hopelessly to club 'em to death.
The morning patrol through the village with 2nd Platoon. The kid who throws a rock and gets his bicycle wheel bent by an angry soldier in return. The barked orders. The less-than-friendly stop-andsearches of passers-by. The five little children, brothers and sisters, reciting the Koran by rote - the only schooling available. The US journalist saying "Good job these guys are under policing rules, otherwise they'd really f*** up."
Lunch. Fried chicken, baked beans, hot dogs, Baskin-Robbins' Cookies 'n Cream, Oreo biscuits, apples, fresh filtered coffee.
And after lunch: launch a few mortars. Thirty of them aimed over the village and the Bedouin tents at the mountains three miles away. The Taliban have observation points there.
Sgt William Parchum from Louisiana has a £9,250 bounty on his head, the usual Taliban prize for killing a mortar specialist. His men take turns dropping the bombs into the cannon. The detonation and silver flash as the bomb flies to 7,000ft. The 52-second flight of an 80mm missile. The puff of smoke as it hits target; and then the roar. "Oh man, I felt that motherf*****," yells Bickford. "Dude, we got rubble!" And then, moments after the mortars finish painting a smiley face on the mountain, another explosion, this time on Highway 1, a half-mile from camp. An IED definitely. A blast in the midst of traffic. Bickford looks away, face suddenly serious.
"Guess it's a bad day for someone," he says.
Tomorrow: The soldier fighting for his 9/11 aunt..
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